A turning point in Japan’s post-war fortunes, the 1964 Olympics were touted as a return to the world stage and a clear symbol of the nation’s rapid progress towards economic and social recovery. Two new sports were set to be added to the roster that year, judo in which the Japanese entrant would take only Silver in a moment of mild national embarrassment, and volleyball in which the women’s team eventually took Gold. More interesting stylistically than thematically, Julien Faraut’s anarchic documentary Witches of the Orient (Les Sorcières de l’Orient) directly ties the women’s success to that of their nation even as they become pop culture heroines immortalised in anime and manga. 

Faraut opens in the present day with surviving members of the team meeting at a Kyoto hotel, a scene he will intermittently return to as the women (briefly) narrate their personal experiences and origins, most of them hailing from Osaka where the team was based and employees of the Nichibo Kaizuka textile factory. Volleyball then being an amateur sport, the Nichibo team came to represent their nation by virtue of winning the national championships and thereafter venturing overseas touring Europe where they triumphed over various Eastern Bloc countries including the USSR whom they would later face in the Olympic final. On their European arrival, the team acquired the nickname of the “Typhoon of the Orient”, perhaps a little problematic in modern terms and slightly irritating to at least one team member who interpreted it to mean that their success would be a short-lived flash in the pan, blowing out by the time they hit Russia. Their victory conferred on them a new title, “Witches of the Orient” which they found even less flattering until they were informed that it referred to a supernatural playing ability rather than a purely pejorative, misogynistic attempt to belittle them. 

As Faraut goes on to outline, the team’s success sparked a new trend in volleyball sports manga including the hugely influential Attack 1 by Chikako Urano, the anime adaptation of which he later directly intercuts with stock footage of the extraordinarily tense final match. A superpower special move is a hallmark of the genre, along with an emphasis on rigorous, body breaking training regimes. The team’s coach, Daimatsu, acquired the nickname of “the demon” for the intensity with which he practiced, a newspaper feature on the girls running under the heading “Driven Beyond Dignity”, yet the older women some of whom are shown still engaging in sporting activity even in advanced age, claim that they did not object to such harsh treatment which often saw them training through the night until the early hours of the morning only to rise at 6.30 for their factory work. In fact, one of them also describes Daimatsu as the sort of man they’d have liked as a father or a husband and that as he had such a calm demeanour they did not feel scolded when he reprimanded them. Daimatsu had apparently managed to survive months stranded in the Burmese jungle at the end of the war and had brought all of his men home safely, perhaps dedicating the same kind of military care and hyper focus to his coaching. 

Nevertheless, Faraut also includes stock footage of the nation in the early ‘60s much of which was still in rubble while later shifting into a more familiar portrait of the headlong economic drive from neon-lit city scapes to factories producing televisions, a new signal of the age many of which will be purchased in order to watch the upcoming Olympics, the women’s volleyball match still among the highest viewed events in the nation’s history. While intercutting scenes from the anime, he does not particularly critique the various ways in which the women’s success was dramatically repurposed and perhaps falls into the same trap implied in the film’s title in a slight fetishisation of certain vision of Japan in neon and electronica while his attempt to interview the surviving Witches often falls oddly flat if not superficial. In any case, he ties the women’s struggle to that of Japan itself, implying that sweat and tears, a spirit of determined endurance, and a certain degree of self-belief powered the nation’s post-war economic miracle culminating in the Olympic gold that seems to have marked the beginning and the end of their story. 

The Witches of the Orient streams in Germany until 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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